The controversy over Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress has had the ironic effect of diverting attention from the very topic the Israeli prime minister wants to discuss: the problems with a potential deal on the Iranian nuclear program. Although everyone debates the propriety of the Israeli prime minister challenging President Obama’s policy in such a setting, the partisan nature of the invitation and the timing of the speech — just two weeks before an Israeli election — the substance of the issue has been pushed aside. Why is there such a divide between the United States’ and Israel’s positions, and can they be bridged?
There is no disguising the gap between the president and prime minister. Obama is clearly prepared to accept a deal that would limit the Iranian nuclear program for perhaps the next 15 years and in a way that ensures the Iranians would be a year away from being able to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran, however, would not be required to dismantle any nuclear facilities or infrastructure — and, after the agreement expires, would be permitted to have an industrial-size nuclear program and be treated like any other party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
In Netanyahu’s view, however, that means leaving Iran as a nuclear-threshold state. Though the prime minister’s public posture is that Iran must not be allowed any enrichment capacity and that its nuclear facilities should be dismantled, my conversations with Israelis suggest that they could, in fact, live with an agreement that permits Iran a small enrichment capability. Their view is that, in return for a rollback of sanctions, there must be a serious rollback of the Iranian nuclear program. By contrast, the deal reportedly under consideration would limit the Iranian nuclear program, not meaningfully diminish it, in return for a rollback of sanctions.
The Israelis argue that if Iran is permitted to have an industrial-size nuclear energy program, it would be able to become a nuclear weapons state at a time of its choosing. Indeed, the transparency or verification system needed to detect a so-called breakout by a small program is unlikely to work for a very large one. Olli Heinonen, a former official at the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for verification, has been outspoken on this point. Heinonen has emphasized that what might be effective for a program with 1,000 to 2,000 centrifuges will not work for one with tens of thousands of centrifuges unless new protocols are developed, access is redefined and additional inspectors are permitted.
Thus, at least in part, the Israeli fear is related to the difficulty of verifying that the Iranians are complying with the NPT once they have an industrial-size program. No doubt it is also driven by concerns about the will of the United States and other nations to prevent Iran from crossing the weapons threshold, particularly if they have accepted a deal in which Iran is permitted a large nuclear infrastructure. Could the Obama administration address those fears?
Yes, provided that the administration is prepared to take two steps.
First, it should ensure that the verification measures in the deal provide for “anywhere, anytime” access to all declared and undeclared facilities, and buttress these measures, which are in the additional protocol of the NPT, with new means to enable effective inspection of a large nuclear program. Since any deal with Iran would serve as a precedent, the United States’ five negotiating partners should support this.
Second, it should be prepared to spell out in advance the consequences for all classes of violations of the agreement. For the most egregious, indicating a dash toward weapons-grade production, the use of force should be the result. Such consequences would be far more credible if the administration worked them out with Congress and they were enshrined in legislation — and if those consequences, especially the use of force, were also applied to an Iranian move to develop nuclear weapons after the term of the agreement.
Incorporating these measures in legislation would send a clear signal and demonstrate that the president and Congress are unified on this issue. It would also serve as a deterrent to Iran and reassure the Israelis about the certainty of our action — removing a key source of their fear of the agreement.
The administration, too, should find this approach acceptable. It would not jeopardize current diplomacy, it would give the administration a way to cooperate with Congress and it would give those on the Hill an outlet for their desire to have an imprint on the deal. And it would be consistent with the core of the administration’s argument: The agreement would limit the Iranian program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — and we would be able to deter the Iranians even after the 15-year period of the deal. It just might also bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu.
Dennis Ross is a counselor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a special assistant to President Obama from 2009 to 2011.